[Winter 1983/84 issue of The Spires Cultural Community Focus]
IAN WALLACE, a truly impressive, dynamic, handsome, 6-foot tall, independent-minded Aries born in 1950 in Niagara Falls, Ontario, a young man with sparkling blue eyes which radiate an infectious warmth that invites spontaneous communication; a young man with a frank look of infinite kindness.
Ian, who graduated from the OCA (Ontario College of Art) in 1974, is a perfect blend of writer and illustrator, and although he enjoyed the intoxicating sensation of instant success at the mere age of twenty-five, after only a fortnight of writing when he had his first bestseller (with Angela Wood), he is totally unaffected and very modest.
He also won several coveted awards for his work, and his book The Sandwich was named a Canadian Classic in April, 1981, by the Canadian Children's Book Centre in Toronto.
He hopes to write for and read to his own children some day, since he really enjoyed having his grandfather read to him when he was a little boy.
Until now, I had always thought that Le Petit Prince by St.-Exupéry was the ultimate in the philosophy and childrenšs book genre but after having listened to the deeply stirring recital of Ian Wallace's The Sandwich, I could not help thinking:
"Warum in die Ferne schweifen,
wenn das Gute liegt so nah?"
(Why search so far afield
When good things are so near?)
This writer and illustrator reaches beyond our national boundaries, being a great humanist who is not teaching yet provides a powerful philosophy, a touching multicultural message, coming from the mouths of children in a simple language that is truly theirs.
His books have universal appeal because children from all around the world can easily identify with his characters and themes.
The Sandwich is the deeply moving experience of a little boy by the name of Vincenzo, who is laughed at by his peers just because his sandwich is and smells different from theirs. However, the story ends on the promising note of all of the unknown. Instead of a negative deduction à la ... who laughs last, laughs best ... the book concludes on the positive note of beauty in diversity.
Ian Wallace is a master in characterization within the framework of dialogue. His children are children of our era; intelligent individuals, who even question adults:
father: Fresh bread out of Fiore's oven it's the best bread in Toronto ...
son: Yeah, but I haven't tasted any other.
Wallace also brings out the cruelty that is already latent in all children, particularly at the expense of one, singled-out child.
... Vincenzo eats stinky meat ... but then tempers it with compassion, showing how those words make the boy's heart bleed who is slighted, just because his food smells strange, looks different and is new to them ... aspects that sum up an entire philosophy of life.
But although momentarily cruel at times, his children are never totally insensitive a fact that Ian showed by means of one single question when Rita asks: "How is your Nonna?" a question that speaks of care.
Then, relief! The child finds the answer. Remembering his father's words, that he has nothing to be ashamed of, he finds strength within himself and joins them in their laughter.
Whenever Ian has asked children whether they had ever been hurt themselves, they have told him quite frankly that they had all been laughed at, at some time or other, or had ethnic labels attached to them. Even at their young age the children know the feeling of hurt and that very experience provides plenty of scope for improvement; for the successful eradication of prejudices.
Wallace's particular beauty lies in the simplicity of his style: in the celebration of creative imagination carried over into adulthood (The Christmas Tree House) and his truly loving approach to people, refreshingly encompassing our elderly as well. Ian Wallace is not affected by the so-called youth cult. His people are young and old; real people who have their feet firmly planted on the ground. It is heartwarming to read that the elderly couple in Julie News, the Simpsons, are active pensioners forever engaged in the highly symbolic art of gardening.
These characters are probably inspired by people Ian knows personally such as his grandfather a small but strong man who happily plunged into his second marriage at the age of 81. No wonder this young man enjoys such tremendous popularity with people of all ages! The cover of Julie News is done in cut-out letters in order to create the desired scrapbook effect, while a hint of nostalgia is produced by a sketch of the elderly pensioners done in pointillism evoking an association with petit point needlework and the mores and customs of a bygone era.
Julie News is a book about an extremely positive, vivacious, concerned and caring papergirl (instead of the stereotype paperboy) who is full of confidence knowing ... she can be whatever she wants if she wants it badly enough ... and on her daily Toronto Star paper route in Cabbagetown she comes, of course, into contact with many types of people who touch her life and whose lives she touches in return.
Wallace still further enhances the beauty of his stories by his superb artwork, conjuring the fairytale-like effect of an inviting winter wonderland by touches of grey, in The Christmas Tree House.
Yet, for all his success, Ian does not rest on his laurels, but is constantly bubbling over with new ideas.
His above mentioned work, a truly fascinating and touchingly illustrated book, is about the hero, Chin Chiang, whose most cherished dream was about to come true when the New Year approached. But instead of seizing the coveted opportunity ... .
He also subtly injects profound symbolism. How touching is the gesture of Don Valley Rose who hands the children the key to the Tree House, their palace and safe refuge. She shares, so generously, this house that has ... a window to the East and one to the West, one to the North and one to the South. Yes, Ian is open to any culture ... a fact that is also clearly reflected in his artwork, for he spares no effort when it comes to in-depth intercultural observation. Ian sometimes spends weeks doing research with painstaking dedication to discover a particular motif, one special characteristic that could be vital to an illustration's authenticity, as in Chin Chiang and the Dragon's Dance.
Chin Chiang becomes scared and runs away. On his flight he meets Pui Ye, an old cleaning woman who had shared the same dream. Gently the child prepares the adult to take his place. However, they get lost in the crowd on their way and ... Chin Chiangšs dream comes true despite his will, the child managing to draw his adult friends into sharing the joy, thus closing the magic circle of the old involving the young, and the young in turn passing on knowledge acquired from his elders to other old people and bringing the elderly together.
This truly wonderful book is to be enjoyed, not only by children, but by the entire family.
Q: Ian, how did your writing for children come about?
A: It was by sheer accident, actually. I graduated from the Ontario College of Art and did not have a job. It so happened that I was having a drink when some people from Kids Can Press, sitting next to me, mentioned that they were looking for an illustrator.
I told them that I would be interested and was hired on the spot.
Q: Did you do any writing before?
A: I have always enjoyed writing. It was just that the idea of putting writing and illustrating together had never even entered my mind.
I particularly enjoy writing for the young. It's challenging. In a picture book you have to create a magical world in, say, twenty-four pages that could easily he 200 pages where adult fiction is concerned.
Q: Do you ever "try out" your writings on children prior to submitting a manuscript for publication?
A: That goes without saying. I enjoy reading my work aloud to friends and children alike. I am always interested in their reaction
I love children and, in particular, their amazing spirit. They are quite spiritual beings and they are bright enough to notice when someone tries to put something over on them.
I would suggest that anyone interested in writing for children, write to them but never at them to give children credit for who they are.
Q: Do you have any special aspirations?
A: To become the best children s writer/illustrator I can be hopefully standing alongside Sendak/Mayer and The Dillons.
Besides, I hope to help eradicate the problem of prejudice by making children question their treatment of others and their reaction to them.
Q: You set yourself a lofty goal.
A: I am convinced it can be done.
I expressed in the "One Author's Tour" article in the In Review magazine, "... it is the right of every child in this country, to see his/her face reflected in a book."
Q: Is there any special advice you would want to pass on to junior writers?
A: To have perseverance in writing.
Q: Should they listen to criticism?
A: Of course, as long as it is constructive and justified. If you agree with the criticism then make the necessary changes. But if you do not then stand by your viewpoint. But never give up.
Copyright © Ian Wallace